Lindsay + Tim Stockhecke
Spanning Jackson and Union Counties, the Shawnee Hills Pottery Trail is an annual shared experience over a two-day period in the month of May. While some of the artists keep regular studio hours the majority of them do not making this the perfect opportunity to meet, ask questions and experience their work in a unique and intimate setting.
Depending on which direction you begin you will have six stops along the way and the opportunity to see/shop the work of nine local potters. We opted to visit artists on both Saturday and Sunday, sprinkling in other activities along the way. While the sprawling reality of Southern Illinois can often feel daunting for visitors and locals alike, this very feature allows for stacking activities and enjoying so much.
We were able to access a trail map through the Shawnee Hills Pottery Trail website both as a Google map and PDF, making for easy navigation. We began in Alto Pass where they were also hosting a Cinco De Mayo festival, jackpot! With four of the nine potters located here we were able to enjoy both beginning by admiring the awe-inspiring sculpture garden at the studio of Dan Johnson. Walking through his lush garden and down and around his workspace, there are art installations nestled throughout, making for a sweet scavenger hunt of sorts and a firsthand look into his unique process.
Alto Clay Works was next with the work of Steve Grimmer, Kari Woolsey and Rob Lorenz. Built in 1928, this was once the Alto Pass Grade School and since restored is now studio to Steve Grimmer as well as resident artists, a pottery showroom, and a classroom for adult and youth pottery classes. The juxtaposition of the rich history of the building, the visible works-in-progress and the many visitors admiring the completed works made for a stirring stop.
Sunday we started on the opposite end in Murphysboro, Illinois with a stop by Bunmakers for a bite to eat, picnic style dining outside and headed on along to visit the remaining artists. Darby Ortolano welcomed us from her porch with a smile and I thought to myself, surely she’s never known a stranger. We admired her work and her hospitality and moved along to Gene and Beth Smout. Being retired, this is one of few opportunities to see and purchase their work. With custom ceramic tiles lining the walls and pockets of delight all around, I was reminded why these experiences are so powerful. They allow glimpses. Glimpses into the wonder of the maker. When you visit an artists studio you get to peak behind the curtain, a curtain that can feel very vulnerable to pull back. And when given the chance, for those who take it, they are afforded the opportunity to see true unbridled flow.
Next visit was White Roof Studios with Harris Deller and Stephanie Dukat. With a winding gravel road to the studio, Deller’s work and space is impressively meticulous while maintaining movement and whimsy. The two story studio was a great final stop along our way.
While the weather prevented us from making it the final artist, Karen Fiorino of Clay Lick Creek Pottery, sells her vibrant works through her Etsy shop as well. In regards to her work she describes, “working with clay is like a dance, there is a rhythm for each movement and a time for each gesture, and I have learned the rhythms of the clay and how the environment effects my pottery’s creation.” We can’t wait to catch her next year.
Whether able to visit one or multiple along the way the Shawnee Hills Pottery Trail is an immersive art experience for the entire family.